Are you have the conversation? Are you talking about race?

7413435At a recent training on equity I was paired with a program officer from a rural community foundation (rats, not a place we work otherwise I would have asked how to access funding). We chatted about our work, eventually our discussion veered towards what is happening in our organizations. I told her about   my organization, Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), and how we hold equity and community as two of our core values and try to live those values.

As we talked, I shared how the turmoil from Trayvon Martin’s shooting, Freddie Gray’s death, and this past summer the violent death of a Somali youth who was walking home from a funeral of another youth made me question how I was leading for racial equity and living our values. These events forced me to evaluate where I stood, was I going to perpetuate fakequity—all talk and no action, or would I do something about it. My response was to open a conversation around race in education and to be intentional about how or coalition has open conversations about race.

My colleague said “wow…” in a tone that suggested she couldn’t have done that in her organization. For a moment I thought “I am in a privileged position to have these conversations,” then I thought no it isn’t a privilege, it is something we ALL have to do.

Recently another colleague told me about her experience. She works for an organization that says they want to embed equitable practices into their work. Their staff is largely White and my friend is African American. When the verdict in the Michael Brown shooting came out my friend talked to her boss and asked if the staff could have a conversation about what was happening nationally and how they would respond. During the meeting, her colleagues talked about how they didn’t think the email message about Michael Brown’s death was appropriate and they didn’t want to have a conversation about race. My friend left the meeting mad and frustrated. Fakequity is saying you want to do something about race, but only doing in a way that makes you comfortable.

“Can we talk about race now?”
Paola Maranan, Executive Director of the badass advocacy organization Children’s Alliance, recent spoke about policy and race and said “Can we talk about race now? Do we get to have the conversation? … We can’t build new systems or policies grounded in reality until we talk about race.” When we talk about race we are talking about the deep and personal stuff, in other word we begin to talk about values, our biases, and personal histories – the stuff that makes us who and what we are.

Depending where you sit and whom you talk to, talking about race is either constructive and important to solving problems or the third rail—talk about race and you get shocked. We need to talk about race and be honest; it doesn’t need to be a shock or a topic that makes people uncomfortable.

Last summer after the deaths of too many African Americans and East Africans, I decided it was time for our coalition to be more explicit in talking about race. I was in a position to respond, but the question was how and what would we do to contribute to the community. I was stuck, I didn’t know what to do or how to lead so I leaned on a few close friends and colleagues.

One of my trusted colleagues is in law enforcement. He sent an email checking in about other things and I emailed back saying I was stuck and restless, he generously offered to help think it through. We met for lunch and over sandwiches I explained my restlessness and frustration. I explained that I knew as an Asian American I was getting a pass on having to talk about race, and it wasn’t right. I felt the tension around wanting to respond, but in an appropriate way, to support the African American community and follow their lead. My colleague is a seasoned and wise African American officer who knows communities, government entrenched systems, and sees the good in a lot of people and places. He urged me to be the bridge builder and to use my position to bring communities together. I also talked to CiKeithia and Heidi, two trusted friends on the fakequity fighters team. CiKeithia told me about her frustration around not having a place to dialogue as a community about what the deaths of African Americans meant to her, in her words she said “I’m struggling.” With Heidi I laid out a few ideas, all of which were promptly dismissed because they were too surface level (she’s the Sherpa and I just follow her and buy her lunch in return).

What We Did – Can we be brave and talk about race?
Heidi came up with the idea of using historical documents to open a conversation around race and center the conversation in education (a realm familiar to all of our coalition members). The historical documents show that not a lot of progress has been made in the past century. She also designed the conversation around using race caucuses. This was an intentional design, by having people caucus the conversations were able to go deeper and faster, especially since we only had 75-min.

At our coalition meeting we had a packed room of partners. These are partners who showed up in the middle of a workday and devoted two hours to the meeting. It was a conversation I think many wanted to have and needed to have the space to talk and connect. When we talk about race we are talking about the deep and personal stuff necessary to build trusting relationships.

Heidi set up the session by giving people a framework of how to have the conversation. She talked about being Color Brave, put relationships first and be intentional about talking about race. The caucuses were meaningful and showed me where we need to do more work. We debriefed as a large group. The sharing was important because people spoke about their own experiences and what race meant to them. Having the conversation recommitted me, our organization, and our partners to speaking honestly and openly about what race means to us and our work.

What are you going to do? How are you going to have conversations about race?
We all have our roles to fulfill and we all can push for racial equity in different ways. Some will be on the ground marching and disrupting to bring important media attention to the cause, others will use their organizational positions to create policies that are designed to impact the racial disparities. What is your role? You have a role to play.

I’m not going to tell you what to do or tell you to read certain books, but rather ask some questions:
Are you having conversations about race within your organization. If you tell me your organization doesn’t deal with race that is BS, we are all impacted by it. Race impacts the environment, arts, education, sciences, entertainment, government planning, etc. Begin to dig deeper and you’ll figure out how and why race matters to your sector.

  • What conversations have you had about race? What did you learn?
  • Are you disaggregating data by race? If you aren’t you need to, people need to see themselves in the data.
  • Where are you getting your information? If everyone you hear from looks like you or you are comfortable with them, you’re not hearing from the right people.
  • What conversations are you avoiding because they are hard? Who do you need to talk to help push for more equitable policies and actions?
  • What is one thing you can do today to open a conversation about race? If you need some help pull out the fakequity chart and begin to think about a program or project you are working on and plot it on the chart then talk to your colleagues about what is working and not working

Some suggestions about how to start the conversation

  • Ask a few people and ask if they want to join you in a discussion. You can suggest something like lunch for equity, race to happy hour, be brave and drink your colors. Before gathering send out a short article or a TED Talk to launch the conversation.
  • Talk to your leadership team and explain why this matters to you and why you want to talk about race. Sometimes a conversation and a little nudge is all that is needed. Also be ready for some push back or to have this take longer than you might like, but some progress is better than none.
  • Be bold and bring it up yourself. We are all responsible for our own actions and we are all in positions every day where we can call out fakequity. Our individual actions make a difference.

I’m grateful people showed up at the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’s conversations about race, it was the beginning of something deeper. We continue to talk about race, and our open conversations about race bring people to the coalition. While talking about race isn’t enough to fix problems, the open conversation allows us to build relationships and work towards equity from the inside then outward. Having conversations about race allows us and our partners to understand our beliefs, which we need to understand before we can build equitable policies and programs.

Posted by Erin, photo credit to Karen Fletcher